A belated Happy Birthday, America! Here's To The Music of Your Life.

Jul 08, 2019 at 10:00 am by Paulette Jackson

Happy Birthday, America!

My country, 'tis of thee,

Sweet land of liberty,
Of thee I sing;
Land where my fathers died,
Land of the pilgrims' pride,
From ev'ry mountainside
Let freedom ring!

~Samuel Francis Smith

Happy Birthday America! Culturally referred to as “Independence Day”, this holiday commemorates the approval of the final text of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Although the signing of the document did not take place until August 2, 1776, we still celebrate its approval on July 4th each year, with patriotic displays, events and festivities of parades, music and lots of fireworks.

While the history books document many of the socio-political-economic ideologies that led up to the writing of the Declaration of Independence, what we often miss, are the stories of the people whose hopes and dreams brought them to this country for a chance – a chance at a better way of life, for themselves and their families, for freedom; to work, to produce, to reap the harvests, and celebrate life. 

Many stories that have been handed down to us, not so much in books, but the ones in songs and music, are those that reflect experientially, the many facets of life in and around our country.  Set to a tune and played on an instrument, these stories inspire the young and the old to join in – to sing and even dance.

Beginning with the Protestants who came to the New World in 1620 for religious freedom, we learn from history that their song, was a religious one, a psalm; the lyrics of which were taken directly from biblical scripture and sung at a slow tempo without accompaniment. Sung at Sabbath services where both Protestants and African Americans could join in, the music was led by a precentor who “set the tune”, so everyone could participate. One of the most commonly sung psalms was Psalm 100, also known as “old Hundred”.

All people on earth do dwell
Sing to the Lord with cheerful voice
Him serve with mirth
His praise forth tell
Come ye before Him and rejoice

Over the next hundred years after the arrival of the Pilgrims, more than 200,000 people came to the New World and British colonies. Mostly Scotch-Irish, they initially settled in Pennsylvania, later making their way to the south and Appalachia Mountains – Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and the Carolinas.

In migration to the the south, new traditions arose, in the form of dance, including Irish reels and jigs accompanied by the fiddles, becoming a significant part of the new frontier where working the land, including barn raising, molasses making, corn husking and apple peeling, was all done communally.

In this environment, where white and black people often lived in close proximity, it was common for musicians to adopt music from each other, melding European American and African American musical traditions. And at the end of the day, when the work was done, you saw blacks and whites sing, shout and husk in company, to the music of Ole Virginny reels played on a greasy fiddle, as well as dance to the old Scottish and Irish jigs, to the sound of a fiddle as well as a banjo.

The song below, Bile Them Cabbage Down, is a tune reflective of the melding of people and traditions as a result of migration to the south. Traced to an English country dance, called Smiling Polly in 1765, this song is one that was played throughout the south, integrating African and European musical elements of the banjo and the fiddle, appreciated by the slave, the minstrel and the mountaineer.

Went up on the mountain
Just to give my horn a blow
Thought I heard my true love say
Yonder comes my beau

chorus: Bile them Cabbage down
Turn them hoecakes round
The only song that I can sing
Is bile them cabbage down

Took my gal to the blacksmith shop
To have her mouth made small
She turned around a time or two
And swallowed shop and all

Possum in a Simmon tree
Raccoon on the ground
Raccoon says you son-of-a-gun
Shake some Simmon's down

Someone stole my old ‘coon dog
Wish they'd bring him back
He chased the big hogs through the fence
And the little ones through the crack

Met a possum in the road
Blind as he could be
Jumped the fence and whipped my dog
And bristled up at me

Once I had an old gray mule
His name was Simon Slick
He'd roll his eyes and back his ears
And how that mule would kick

In the colonial days of New England, many Protestant communities had restrictions against dancing and playing musical instruments. Play parties were designed to sidestep those restrictions and replace intricate patterns of country dances. The song below was probably a common play-party song, using only simple patterns of children's games and hand-claps for accompaniment. Depending on the locale in which this song was sung, the aunt in the song, may have had a name such as Patsy, Dinah, or Nancy.

Go Tell Aunt Rhody

Go tell Aunt Rhody
Go tell Aunt Rhody
Go tell Aunt Rhody
The old gray goose is dead

The one she's been saving (x 3)
To make her feather bed

She died in the mill pond (x 3)
Standing on her head

She left nine little goslins (x 3)
To scratch for their own bread

The goslings are crying (x 3)
Because their mother's dead

The gander is weeping (x 3)
Because his wife is dead

After the War of 1812, American interest was now free to to expand into the territories of Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin since the threat of Indian attack supported by the British was now removed.

Immigrants now flooded into the United States to farm, work in the factories, and build roads and canals. Eastern seaboard land in the United States became scarce and expensive as industrialization advanced. Seeking new land and opportunity, many pioneers loaded their wagons and headed west. But the decision whether to stay in the relatively settled lands of New England or venture into lesser-known territory was not an easy one to make.

The lyrics to The Wisconsin Emigrant are representative of the discussions that went on in thousands of households at the time.

Since times are so hard, I've thought, my true heart
Of leaving my oxen, my plough, and my cart
And away to Wisconsin, a journey we'd go
To double our fortune as other folks do
While here I must labor each day in the field
And the winter consumes all the summer doth yield

Oh husband, I've noticed with sorrowful heart
You've neglected your oxen, your plough, and your cart
Your sheep are disordered; at random they run
And your new Sunday suit is now every day on
Oh, stay on the farm and you'll suffer no loss
For the stone that keeps rolling will gather no moss

Oh wife, let's go; oh, don't let us wait
Oh, I long to be there; oh, I long to be great
While you some rich lady – and who knows but I
Some governor may be before that I die?
While here I must labor each day in the field
And the winter consumes all the summer doth yield

Oh husband, remember that land is to clear
Which will cost you the labor of many a year
Where horses, sheep, cattle, and hogs are to buy
And you'll scarcely get settled before you must die
Oh, stay on the farm and you'll suffer no loss
For the stone that keeps rolling will gather no moss

Oh wife, let's go; oh, don't let us stay
I will buy me a farm that is cleared by the way
Where horses, sheep, cattle, and hogs are not dear
And we'll feast on fat buffalo half of the year
While here I must labor each day in the field
And the winter consumes all the summer doth yield

Oh husband, remember that land of delight
Is surrounded by Indians who murder by night
Your house they will plunder and burn to the ground
While your wife and your children lie murdered around
Oh, stay on the farm, and you'll suffer no loss
For the stone that keeps rolling will gather no moss

Now wife, you've convinced me; I'll argue no more
I never had thought of your dying before
I love my dear children, although they are small
But you, my dear wife, are more precious than all
We'll stay on the farm, and suffer no loss
For the stone that keeps rolling will gather no moss

In 1854, Stephen Foster wrote the following song. At that time, the country was in the throws of growing pains with its westward expansion;  still battling Indians, establishing Indian reservations, slavery issues, strained relationships with Cuba, hostilities toward Catholics, including the violent killing of a Priest.

Stephen Foster and his family lived in Pittsburgh. The dire circumstances of unemployment and disease dominated much of life. In one summer, cholera took the lives of 400 people. He wrote the song, Hard Times Come Again No More, to help ends meet. Their family also took a minister into their already crowded home.

Foster saw poor people as his neighbors. Their “pleading looks” created a demand for his attention. Their “frail forms fainting at the door” called for companionship — “while we all sup sorrow with the poor.”

Hard Times Come Again No More

'Tis the song, the sigh of the weary
Hard times, hard times, come again no more
Many days you have lingered around my cabin door
Oh, hard times come again no more

Let us pause in life's pleasures and count its many tears
While we all sup sorrow with the poor
There's a song that will linger forever in our ears
Oh, hard times come again no more

While we seek mirth and beauty and music light and gay
There are frail forms fainting at the door
Though their voices are silent, their pleading looks will say
Oh, hard times come again no more

There's a pale drooping maiden who toils her life away
With a worn heart whose better days are o'er
Though her voice would be merry, 'tis sighing all the day
Oh, hard times come again no more

'Tis a sigh that is wafted across the troubled wave
'Tis a wail that is heard upon the shore
'Tis a dirge that is murmured around the lowly grave
Oh, hard times come again no more

The journey to California in the days of the Gold Rush wasn't easy by sea or land. A clipper ship leaving New York took at least three months, with all the usual dangers of traveling by sea, to round the bottom of South America and reach San Francisco. The journey by land took six months from the mid-West, with many coming from further away.

Sweet Betsy from Pike comes from a songbook published in 1858 called Put's Golden Songster. “Old Put” was the pseudonym of John A. Stone, a San Francisco-based entertainer who wrote, performed, adapted, collected, and published songs for and about gold miners. This one was based on an Irish tune that was most likely brought to the New World during the potato famine. There is a Pike County in both Missouri and Illinois from where many California-bound gold seekers began their land journeys.

Sweet Betsy From Pike

Did you ever hear tell of sweet Betsy from Pike
Who crossed the wide prairies with her lover Ike
With two yoke of cattle and a one-spotted hog
A tall Shanghai rooster and an old yellow dog

One evening quite early they camped on the Platte
Made down their blankets on a green shady flat
Where Betsy, sore-footed, lay down to repose
With wonder Ike gazed on his Pike County rose

Their wagons broke down with a terrible crash
And out on the prairie rolled all sorts of trash
A few little baby clothes, done up with care
‘Twas rather suspicious, though all on the square

The Shanghai ran off and the cattle all died
That morning the last piece of bacon was fried
Poor Ike was discouraged, and Betsy got mad
The dog drooped his tail and looked wondrously sad

They soon reached the desert, where Betsy gave out
And down in the sand she lay rolling about
While Ike, half distracted, looked on with surprise
Saying “Betsy, get up, you'll get sand in your eyes”

Sweet Betsy got up in a great deal of pain
Declared she'd go back to Pike County again
But Ike heaved a sigh, and they fondly embraced
And they traveled along with his arm 'round her waist

They swam the wide rivers and climbed the tall peaks
And camped on the prairies for weeks upon weeks
Starvation and cholera, hard work and slaughter
They reached California spite of hell and high water

That morning they stood on a very high hill
And with wonder looked down into old Placerville
Ike shouted and said, as he cast his eyes down
“Sweet Betsy, my darling, we've got to Hangtown"

Long Ike and sweet Betsy attended a dance
Where Ike wore a pair of his Pike County pants
Sweet Betsy was covered with ribbons and rings
Said Ike “You're an angel, but where are your wings?”

This Pike County couple got married, of course
But Ike became jealous, obtained a divorce
And Betsy, well satisfied, said with a shout
“Goodbye, you big lummox, I'm glad you backed out”

The song, The Yellow Rose of Texas, was written for the minstrel stage by a composer known only as J.K. It became popular during the Civil War and passed into Southern fiddling tradition in a somewhat altered form.

Yellow Rose Of Texas

She's the sweetest rose of color this soldier ever knew
Her eyes are bright as diamonds, they sparkle like the dew
You may talk about your dearest May and sing of Rosa Lee
But the yellow rose of Texas beats the belles of Tennessee

There's a yellow rose in Texas that I am going to see
No other soldier knows her, no soldier, only me
She cried so when I left her, it like to broke my heart
And if I ever find her, we never more will part

Where the Rio Grande is flowing and the starry skies are bright
She walks along the river in the quiet summer night
She thinks if I remember, when we parted long ago
I promised to come back again and not to leave her so

Oh, now I'm going to find her, for my heart is full of woe
And we'll sing the song together, that we sung so long ago
We'll play the banjo gaily, and we'll sing the songs of yore
And the yellow rose of Texas shall be mine forevermore

When the Civil War was over, huge areas of the South lay in ruin. Millions of Southerners, black and white, were now homeless and faced with the reality of having to reconstruct their lives. In the face of this, some packed their few belongings and headed west to see what may await them. Among the things they brought with them as they attempted to start their lives anew were their beloved songs. The song version retains a Gaelic melody and was popular with the early American cowboys which some of these drifting Southerners were soon to become.

Rambling Gambler
1870 – 1900

I'm a rambler and a gambler
And a long ways from home
If the people don't like me
They can leave me alone

Oh, it's dark and it's a-rainin'
And the moon gives no light
My pony won't travel
On this dark road at night

Go put up your pony
And give him some hay
Come take your seat by me
Just as long as you stay

My pony isn't hungry
No, he won't eat your hay
We're headed for Wyoming
We're gonna graze on the way

I used to have me a pretty little sweetheart
Her age was nineteen
She was the flower of Belton
And the rose of Saline

But her parents were against me
And now she is the same
If I'm on your book, love
Won't you blot out my name

I'm a rambler and a gambler
And a long ways from home
If the people don't like me
They can leave me alone

Oh, it's dark and it's a-rainin'
And the moon gives no light
My pony won't travel
On this dark road at night

In the 1950s and 1960s the song, This Little Light of Mine, written by Harry Dixon Loes in about 1920, was one of the most popular gospel songs. While often thought of as a spiritual, it does not appear in any collection of jubilee or plantation songs from the 19th century.  The song takes its theme from Matthew 5:16, “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your fine works and give glory to your Father who is in the heaven.”

This Little Light of Mine

This little light of mine
I'm gonna let it shine
This little light of mine
I'm gonna let it shine
This little light of mine
I'm gonna let it shine
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine

Out in the dark…

Everywhere I go…

Ain't gonna make it shine
Just gonna let it shine…

We've got the light of freedom
We're gonna let it shine…

This little light of mine.

It is in honor of our homeland and its story of birth and growing up, that I have chosen to bring the perspective of music to readers. For the songs reflect, more than most textbooks, more than most newspapers, or news broadcast, the stories of people; not just from one part of the nation, but from across the whole nation; their work, their suffering, their triumph, their loss, and their heart and soul, love for life, family and homeland. May we honor their stories, and learn from them. And in learning, may we remember and commit to, honoring our own light, and let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.

For the Support of Your Life
For the Many Sides of Life
Paulette Jackson lpc-mhsp

All of the information in this blog can be found at; Ballad of America. American Heritage Music. Matthew Sabatella and the Rambling String Band. CDs are available. I highly recommend them for learning and enjoyment.

The thoughts and opinions express in The Conversant Counselor's Blog are those belonging to Paulette Jackson lpc-mhsp and do not necessarily reflect those of any other professional or individual.

photo credit: cherylbartleydesigns.com